Welcoming Committee

Excerpt from Black Venom

About an hour into their trek, the siren got very skittish. “Be on your guard,” she warned. “She’s about to launch an attack.” The entire company went on the alert. Look about as they might, though, they could see no immediate threat. It wasn’t until one of the men at the rear of their group collapsed that they realized the true nature of the menace.

“Barnett, what is it?” Grimm called to the man, as he turned to check on him. A crawling horror played out before the pirates as they all turned to look.

Barnett lay writhing on the ground, or so they thought. Then they realized he was already dead. A horde of venomous creatures crawled on and in his body, making it appear to writhe.

Knowing what to look for now, it didn’t take them long to realize that they were completely surrounded. Every kind of spider, scorpion, and snake imaginable closed in on them.

The men quickly huddled together. Belle got so close to Viktor’s back that only their clothes separated them. No one noticed that the creatures seemed to shy away from Grimm as he moved to stay with the group.

There was a tacit agreement that no one would make an effort to retrieve Barnett’s body. Everyone was more concerned with not ending up in the same state.

Viktor felt grateful that Belle stayed at his back rather than cling to his front or side. Still, the other crew members huddled close enough to make him feel crowded. He found it very irritating; an effect he felt sure that Venoma wanted  to achieve.

The creatures advanced no further than just outside the edge of their group. The pirates huddled closer. Yet their tormentors did not close the circle smaller, as if some invisible line they would not or could not cross had been drawn around the group.

“What are they waiting for?” one of the pirates, Higgins, asked. The man kept glancing at the horror that had been Barnett. He was sweating and stank of piss and fear.

The vampire narrowed his eyes. He realized the Sister was beginning to play mind games. She might still try to kill him, but not before she’d had her fun.

Something began to tickle his face. He looked up and saw that several spiders had spun webs between the branches overhead. Although the spiders didn’t drop down on their heads, they’d dropped a multitude of silken threads to dangle down.

“Gah! They’re on me!” Higgins screamed and batted at the webs. He only succeeded in making them stick to him.

Viktor clamped down with his will in an effort to keep the man calm and prevent the panic from spreading to the others. “It’s only webs, man. The spiders can’t touch you inside the circle.”

His words fell on ears deafened by an unreasoning terror. Viktor was only able to keep the other men from bolting.

“Get them off! Get them off!” Higgins continued to bat at the webs and scrub at his face. He started to back up as if that would free him.

Grimm tried to reach for him, but wasn’t close enough. “Stay with the crew, Higgins!”

A few seconds later, Higgins backed into his death. The moment he set foot past the invisible barrier, the creatures swarmed him. He didn’t even have time to scream. The creatures just flowed up his legs and covered him. Then they poured into his mouth, nose, and ears.

Viktor put a mini-ball through the man’s forehead to end the brief look of pain and terror in his eyes.

“What’s that hum?” Belle cringed and held her ears. A loud buzzing had started and was growing louder. It soon reached deafening levels.

Before long, they didn’t have to wonder what caused the sound. The sky above them grew dark, and an enormous swarm of wasps, hornets, and bees converged on them. However, just like the land bound creatures, the airborne pests were blocked by an invisible boundary. It was like being in a bubble, the edges of which throbbed with crawling death.

The air started to get close and hot. The bugs were vibrating and putting off heat.

Viktor decided he’d had enough. Even he started to sweat in the living oven they were trapped in. He reached into his shirt and pulled out the Elder’s Stone. It flashed bright, temporarily blinding everyone. The surrounding creatures emitted a high pitched squeal followed by an eerie silence.

Everyone’s sight soon returned. The bubble had expanded considerably, with the sky once again visible overhead. On the jungle floor lay the carcasses of all the creatures that had been trapped by the explosive expansion of the protective barrier.

As one, the remaining flying insects rose in a cloud and headed toward the shore. They would reach the Incubus in a matter of minutes. Viktor sent one desperate thought to all of his crewmen through the blood link he had with them.

Smudge Pots!

“What?” Belle, who had heard the thought as well, asked.

“The smoke will help keep the bugs away,” he said.

He smiled grimly as Lazarus sent him an image back from the ship. The crew had gotten the message and, more importantly, understood it. They’d gotten the pots lit and smoking just before the swarm arrived. Some of the men were getting stung, but it was nothing like it would have been without the smoke.

Suddenly a new horror faced them. The bodies of Barnett and Higgins stood up. It was a lurching, unnatural movement and would have been even if they’d still been alive. The very creatures that had killed them held them erect like meaty puppets. It didn’t help the image that their bodies were already partially eaten.

A whispering, chittering sound came from them. Venoma was using the creatures to try to speak to them.

“Turn back now and I may spare you.”

“I think not, and I call you a liar, Venoma Noir,” Viktor replied. “You would kill us all, if you could.”

“Then you will have no crew left to return to, vampire. Yes, I know what you are and what you think you are. I do not believe you are the One, regardless of what the others think. Come to me, if you can. I will set you a task you cannot hope to finish. I will prove to those fools that you are not the One.”

He held the glowing crystal toward the corpses of his men. The creatures animating them fled before its light, allowing them to collapse in lifeless heaps.

He turned to Belladonna and asked, “Which way is she?”

“Northwest.”

“Keep up,” he said to the others. “If you fall behind, you’ve seen what will happen to you.”

*

The Elder’s Stone kept the creatures away from them for the rest of the trek. The only place where they had some difficulty was while climbing a steep incline.

The trees grew close enough together that they could use them to help climb up the hill; but it had recently rained. The ground and leaf litter were slick and slimy. It cost them one more man before they reached the top.

Mr. Winters was in the middle of the group. As he reached for the small tree bole above him, his foot slipped off the one he had propped against. It threw him off balance and he hit the hillside flat on his face. He had the wind knocked out of him, and he was disoriented.

He started slipping down the slope. By the time he recovered his wits enough to try to scramble for a fresh purchase, he was no longer within reach of anything solid other than one of his crewmate’s legs. The man he grabbed started to lose his grip from the sudden extra weight. Grimm reached out and grabbed Mr. Bland, before Winters could drag him downslope with him.

Winters once again lost his grip. The slide into the nest of snakes and scorpions was swift. He didn’t even manage a scream.

“You all right, Mr. Bland?” Grimm asked.

“Aye.” He looked down at the death he narrowly avoided. “Poor bugger. I told him not to wear that red shirt. It’s bad luck.”

They reached the hilltop without further incident.

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